"What the mainstream suppresses becomes the shadow world. If we want to look at our own fears, biases and prejudices, we have to look at that world.”
Stephen A. Russell

20 Jul 2017 - 4:26 PM  UPDATED 20 Jul 2017 - 4:28 PM

As a young man, Mumbai-born author and playwright Anosh Irani recalls being intrigued by a group of women who congregated at the gates of his convent school every evening, all wearing the same strange, dark shade of lipstick. “I felt they were very different from me, my family, and the people I knew, but at the same time I was too young to understand what that meant.”

His parents warned him of the dangers of straying too close to the gate that separated the school across the road from the gated community of English-style homes where the women rented, which of course only increased his curiosity. These nightly visitors were members of India’s hijra or “third sex” community, seen as neither male nor female, but fitting under the trans umbrella. They were also sex workers who wore an unpleasant concoction on their lips to ward off unwanted kisses from clients.  

Officially recognised as a third gender by Indian law since 2014, the progress of equal rights has been slow and halting for the hijra community. “There is still this element of them being the other, of being different and there’s so much history, mythology and superstition,” Irani says. “There are so many layers, and someone has to take the time to want to go through them.”

Speaking via Skype from his home in Vancouver, where he moved at 24 to study creative writing, Irani still calls his home city Bombay out of habit – despite Mumbai becoming the official name in 1995. Kamathipura, the red light district  where most of the local hijras lived and worked in brothels, is just around the corner. Indeed, one of his earliest memories is of sitting on his mother’s shoulders as she cut through this neighbourhood as a short cut to his grandmother’s house.

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The Parcel’s protagonist is ageing hijra Madhu, who uses female pronouns. She was taken as a young effeminate boy from her unaccepting parent’s home and underwent the castration process that hijra hierarchy sees as deeply religious, part of an ancient culture referenced in Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Madhu notes that hijra are both, “reviled and revered”.

Having previously written about the hijra community in a short story, as well as his play The Matka King, Irani long toyed with the idea of writing a novel, knowing it would be a difficult journey. Though he identifies as a straight man, Irani says he has always felt an affinity with the hijra community and found himself missing their presence as much as he yearned for family after relocating to Canada. “They shaped my consciousness. I’m not writing out of fascination, I’m writing out of a need to understand their inner world. What the mainstream suppresses becomes the shadow world. If we want to look at our own fears, biases and prejudices, we have to look at that world.”

Returning to Mumbai for annual visits, Irani walked the streets of Kamathipura, speaking to the people he met and observing how the dangerous neighbourhood transformed at various points of the day and night. Ultimately, he wrote the first two drafts of The Parcel before officially interviewing people to get the details right, including trans woman Simran Shaikh, a former hijra sex worker who now works with an NGO.

Richly evocative of place, The Parcel is also a confronting read. One telling section refers to a rolling TV news story regarding the rape of a bride on her wedding night and calls for the three men responsible to be castrated. One politician says, “These people need to be humiliated. Make them hijras.”

Madhu’s former pimp says to her, “What they’re saying is that our existence is a fate worse than death. I don’t think they will ever understand us.”

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Madhu also ponders that, as awful as the violence inflicted on the bride is, many endure similar attacks unmourned. “But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights? Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers? Or hijras?”

The compelling moral complexity of the novel extends to Madhu. It becomes clear that ‘the parcel’ of the title is a sex trafficked young girl who Madhu is expected to train. In this dark place of squalor and poverty, Madhu sees it as a kindness to break the young girl forcibly of her past, arguing that to cling to the family that abandoned her for the price of a goat would be a greater cruelty.

It makes for difficult reading. “As a reader, I like being off-balance. If I’m able to get behind a character completely, it’s not as satisfying, but what’s really interesting for me is to let the reader realise, ‘why am I even rooting for this character? Should I?’ It’s important, because in the red light district, morality goes to the dogs.”

Irani also interrogates the gentrification of encroaching developers bulldozing the past and displacing these impoverished people. “It’s not a nostalgic place for me, it’s a place of horror,” he says. “This place had been built on pain and now it is profitable, but what about the atrocities that have occurred for so many years?”

Frustrated by a lack of narratives exploring this world and India’s hijra community, he felt an urgency to write The Parcel all the while wondering if he had that right. Irani hopes that taking the time to listen and translating part of this story in his novel can at the very least open more dialogue. “Every single human being at the end of the day wants acceptance. We want to be loved and rejection creates a deep wound within us… The minute we realise we have something in common, that we all need to feel loved, it sort of changes the equation.”

Anosh Irani’s The Parcel is out now, published by Scribe. Buy a copy hereIrani will also be a guest of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. For more details, click here